Erdrich has perfected the
that begin with an out-of-the-blue, catastrophic event,
and then track the ensuing
shock waves. This dramatic
structure shapes her National Book Award–winning
The Round House (2012) and
takes on even more intensity
BY DONNA SEAMAN
Two neighboring families live in a North Dakota community in which many of the Ojibwe are related, memories are long, and the wounds of the war against Native Americans run deep: “Loss, dislocation, disease, addiction, and just feeling
like the tattered remnants of a people with a complex history.” The women, half-sisters,
do not get along; their husbands have become friends. Landreaux and Emmaline Iron
are raising five children, including their youngest, LaRose, a preternaturally soulful five-year-old boy. Nola and her white husband, Peter Ravich, have Maggie and Dusty, born
at the same time as Dusty’s favorite playmate, LaRose. The summer of 1999 is waning, the Y2K scare growing, and Landreaux, a physical-therapy assistant devoted to his
clients and guided by both Ojibwe beliefs and the Catholic Church, is hunting. He’s a
crack shot, but when he pulls the trigger, the deer flees, and Dusty falls.
Landreaux and Emmaline make a devastating decision: they will give LaRose to Nola
and Peter. “Our son will be your son,” Landreaux says. “It’s the old way.” As Erdrich
explores the inevitable anguish and complications inherent in this act of sacrifice and
attempt at justice, she takes soundings of the wellsprings of trauma and strength shaping these grieving households. The time frame shifts to 1839 when a trading post stood
on the land the Irons now occupy. There a desperate Ojibwe woman “from a mysterious and violent family” trades her daughter for rum, igniting a terrifying sequence of
passion, murder, and supernatural revenge. Gliding back and forth in time, Erdrich
follows the long line of healers named LaRose, and reveals Landreaux’s long-hidden
past tied to a boarding school designed to sever Native American children from their
roots, as well as his volatile relationship with a fellow student named Romeo, now a
brooding, plotting, outlaw loner in the grip of substance abuse, poverty, and rage. Their
simmering conflict is a key aspect of Erdrich’s increasingly suspenseful inquiry into the
repercussions of vengeance.
The radiance of this many-faceted novel is generated by Erdrich’s tenderness for her
characters, beginning with the profoundly involving primary figures. But there’s also
Father Travis, crucial to The Round House and reappearing here in all his rigor, incisiveness, and unruly desires. A circle of bawdy elder women and the smart and funny
sisters Snow and Josette (among the young characters who will fascinate advanced
teen readers) provide comic relief and covertly wise counsel, while Peter’s extreme
preparedness for the turn-of-the-millennium apocalypse offers a piquant reflection on
questions of fear and faith.
LaRose is the fifteenth novel in Erdrich’s magnificent North Dakota cycle about the
painful and proud legacy and intricately entangled relationships among Native Americans, whites, and people of mixed heritage, a brilliantly imagined and constructed saga
of empathy, elegy, spirituality, resilience, wit, wonder, and hope that will stand as a defining master work of American literature for generations to come.
By Louise Erdrich.
May 2016. 384p. Harper, $27.99